Vinum Exhilarat Animum

For the third year in a row I have hosted visitors to Ontario from the wine trade in England. There is growing curiosity about what’s going on in Ontario in the English trade.  This curiosity is fed by the success garnered by many Ontario wines in competitions such as the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards, both London-based annual events.  This success is not met by wide availability in England of Ontario wines, so the curiosity has to be met by personal visits.

This year my guests had their way to Ontario paid by the Worshipful Company of Vintners, an ancient livery company (trade association) dating from the 14th century.  This Company is one 108 livery companies in London and apparently ranks 11th in precedence: presumably reflecting the importance of wine in the annals of ancient commerce in London.  Membership is made up of senior members of the wine trade some of whom – until recently – were able to sell wine anywhere in London without a license. The Latin motto of the Company of Vintners (quoted above) translates to Wine Cheers the Spirit.

The Company was instrumental in founding the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and the Institute of Masters of Wine, both of which have been important bodies in advancing the levels of skill and competency in the English wine trade.

Each year this Company grants the Vintners Cup to the WSET Diploma graduate attaining the highest aggregate marks on the six units comprising the Diploma curriculum. This year’s winner was Emma Harrison and her prize was a bursary which would fund travel to anywhere in the world of wine. Emma chose Ontario as her bursary destination as she sees few of our wines in London. She has travelled throughout the Old and New World and she wanted to learn more about this place.

I was asked to assemble a tour for Emma and her winemaker boyfriend so over the first week of July they visited 16 of the best wineries in Niagara and Prince Edward County, along with visits to the Wine Council of Ontario and the Vineland Research Centre. I received an instant and enthusiastic response from each winery I wrote to, introducing Emma as a prospective visitor. Well-done Ontario!

I joined our visitors for selected tastings and was delighted with the generous reception they were granted by each host, both in terms of time and content offered. We showed our best!

I participated in three tastings, catch-up tastings to see how things were evolving at Thirty Bench, Hidden Bench and Norman Hardie.

The following is simply a highlights overview – suffice it to say all three continue to progress higher up the quality ladder.

Emma Garner, winemaker at Thirty Bench, continues the traditions of this fine boutique operation (part of the Andrew Peller family since 2005) making small lot Rieslings, a small-lot Cabernet Franc and a fine Meritage blend (other varietals are vinified but these are the wines to seek out).

I think Peller should be congratulated for the work they have done as owner of Thirty Bench.  They have provided capital to upgrade the winemaking facilities and enhance vineyard management but they have left the operation in the hands of folks like Emma who behave like owners with an unrelenting focus on quality.

If you want to experience the impact that terroir has on wine -in the case of Thirty Bench soil and micro-climate – there is no better place to visit than Thirty Bench.  The three small-lot Rieslings: Wood Post, Triangle and Steel Post, are all stunning but distinctly different.  Similarly if you need proof that we can grow grapes in Niagara to make a solid Bordeaux-blend red, then you should taste the 2008 Winemakers Red.

Harald Thiel, vigneron at Hidden Bench, is a living demonstration of the importance of hands-on management when it comes to achieving lofty goals.  Since it released its first vintage with the 2005’s H-B has built a solid reputation as the leading maker of super-premium wines in Ontario, if not all of Canada.

As more newly-planted vines come on stream annual production continues to increase, now in the area of 7,000 cases. With Marlize Beyers now firmly settled into her role as winemaker there is modest evolution in the style of the H-B wines – the result being more finesse on the well-established reputation for intense fruit expression, precise acidity and firm minerality.

The H-B range is wide, covering:

  • aromatic Rieslings, Viognier  and Gewürztraminer
  • a firm and expressive Bordeaux white
  • an intense Fumé Blanc – give it 3 -4 years before opening
  • classic New World/Old World Chardonnays (let’s call them mid-Atlantic…)
  • a serious, small-volume Rosé (a blend which includes some Malbec)
  • two big Meritage reds
  • a suite of estate and single vineyard Pinot Noirs.

A couple of years ago Tony Aspler suggested to me the most important thing for Ontario winemakers to do is reduce the number of varieties they vinify.  The effect would be to focus more what we do best and build a brand for world class wines made with that handful of varieties.  H-B covers a wide varietal waterfront with its wines.  The problem Harald and team would have if they were to try to cull the number of varieties would be…which ones?  They do them all with style and flair.

I also spent a day in Prince Edward County with my guests and that time was spent at Norman Hardie Winery.  Norman was granted special recognition when Matt Kramer, Wine Spectator columnist, listed the 2008 Prince Edward County Chardonnay as one of the three best wines he tasted in 2011 (the other two wines were a dry Tokaji Furmint from Hungary and a Clare Valley Riesling).

Norman is a widely-travelled vigneron who marches to his own drummer to make wines that are solid and expressive, across the full range. We best know Norman for his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs but I discovered his stunning Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Gris, Rieslings and Cabernet Franc during our visit.

Norman’s wines are not for everyone, especially if your palate has developed on New World wines.  Some of Norman’s wines show modest reduction on the nose and this will put off inexperienced tasters.  Norman also uses lees aging almost across the board so along with intense fruit expression comes the autolytic character of the dead yeast cells that adds complexity. He uses stainless dairy tanks, lain on their sides to maximize lees contact, with no batonnage. While Norman matures his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in wood, the wood regime yields only modest smoke and vanilla. For me these elements lend a distinctly Old World experience that is appealing and once again shows the potential for Ontario, when solid, principled viticulture and winemaking are combined.

There you have a quick update on three of our leading makers in Ontario.  Things continue to be on the up-tick in wine country Ontario and I encourage all to learn more about our domestic wines…and buy!

I should note my guests were impressed consistently with the quality of the wines they tasted and also with the welcoming reception they received everywhere they went. Well-done Ontario!

If you would like the names of the wineries I selected for this tour, send me a note.

A sidebar on Cabernet Franc:  this grape is emerging for me as a true Ontario champion, along with Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. This is a grape which ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and which grows on hardy vine-stock able to withstand killing winter cold. Sounds like the perfect black grape for a cool-climate place like Ontario, don’t you think?

Several Ontario producers are making excellent wines from this grape, a grape that is often used in blends (Bordeaux and California for example) but which has its highest expression as the main black grape of the Loire Valley.

Cabernet Franc is THE Cabernet, as it is the parent – along with its crossing partner,  Sauvignon Blanc – of Cabernet Sauvignon. Apparently this was an accidental crossing, the story lost with the passage of time.

Oz Clarke gives the best description of the taste of C-F: “at its best Cabernet Franc has the unmistakable and ridiculously appetizing flavor of raspberries, also pebbles washed clean by pure spring water and a refreshing tang of blackcurrant leaves”.

There you have it: ridiculously appetizing and refreshing!  If you haven’t discovered this grape yet I recommend you check out the single varietal C-F wines made by the following Ontario makers: Norman Hardie, Rosewood, Southbrook, Stratus, Strewn and Thirty Bench.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2013.